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Ontario 



CEMETERIES AND GROUNDWATER: 

AN EXAMINATION 

OF THE 

POTENTIAL CONTAMINATION 

OF GROUNDWATER 

BY PRESERVATIVES 

CONTAINING FORMALDEHYDE 



FEBRUARY 1992 



Environment 
Environnement 



- 



ISBN 0-7729-9199-5 



CEMETERIES AND GROUNDWATER: 

AN EXAMINATION OF THE POTENTIAL 

CONTAMINATION OF GROUNDWATER BY 

PRESERVATIVES CONTAINING FORMALDEHYDE 



Report Prepared By: 

G.Soo Chan, M.Scafe, S.Emami 

Water Resources Branch 

Ontario Ministry of the Environment 



FEBRUARY 1992 

© 

norm) on 

KCYClfD PATH 

■ Mtfim 

DU PW1BI RECmi 

Cette publication technique 
n'est disponible qu'en anglais. 

Copyright: Queen's Printer for Ontario, 1992 

This publication may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes 

with appropriate attribution. 



PIBS 1813 
log 91-2302-231 



INTRODUCTION 

A study on the effect of burial preservatives on groundwater 
quality was initiated in the summer of 1990, by the Drinking Water 
Section of the Water Resources Branch, as a result of public 
concern that this may be a significant source of groundwater 
contamination. 

The Water Resources Branch conducted a groundwater reconnaissance 
sampling survey using existing wells at six sites. Analyses were 
conducted for formaldehyde, nitrates and phosphates. 
Bacteriological analyses were also done. The sites were 
predominately in shallow sandy aquifers down gradient of 
cemeteries. 



LITERATURE SURVEY 

Two extensive literature surveys were carried out for this project. 
National and public libraries, both here and in the United States 
of America were approached for information. Academia and 
regulatory bodies were also contacted for information. No 
literature on this subject could be obtained. It may be noted that 
this investigation is the first of its kind in North America. This 
initiative may serve as background material to others who may be 
interested in this subject for further study. 

The Ministry, following a lead, extended its survey to Holland, and 
one publication entitled "Cemeteries as Sources of Contamination" 
by Dr. F.W.J. Van Haaren was found. The findings of this document 
have been incorporated into this report. 



BURIAL PRACTICES SURVEY 

A survey of standard burial practices indicated that in populated 
areas in Ontario, the majority of bodies (90%) are embalmed and 
then placed into a casket. Caskets range from soft to hard woods 
to steel. Steel caskets are hermetically sealed. The casket may 
be placed into a concrete vault and sealed with impermeable 
caulking. According to MOE guidelines, the concrete vault is 
placed into the ground at a minimum depth of 0.5 metres above the 
highest water table. MOE guidelines also recommend that graves be 
a minimum of 3 metres from a well or surface water source being 
used for drinking purposes. 

Embalming is the process of sanitizing and preserving human remains 
to render them safe for handling while retaining the natural 
appearance of the tissue for funeral viewing purposes. The 



process retards putrefaction and lignification by "fixing" the skin 
and underlying tissues. 

The preservative (a formaldehyde solution) , is injected at several 
sites on the body. Two formulae of different concentrations are 
commonly used. One is used for the circulatory system while the 
other is injected into the organs located within the thoracic and 
abdominal cavities displacing the natural body fluids. 

DRINKING WATER STANDARDS FOR FORMALDEHYDE 

Currently there is no drinking water standard for formaldehyde in 
Canada. From work done in the U.S, the Emergency Response Group 
Committee on Toxicology, National Academy of Sciences, has 
recommended that EPA establish a drinking water standard of 110 
micrograms/L (ppb) , (Tomkins et al.). 

FORMALDEHYDE 

Formaldehyde, an animal carcinogen, causes squamous cell carcinomas 
in nasal cavities of laboratory rats and male mice. Formaldehyde 
can exert its mutagenic and carcinogenic effects by both damaging 
DNA and inhibiting its repair (Graftstrom et al.). Neither the U.S 
nor Canada have established a regulatory standard for formaldehyde 
in drinking water. 

Formaldehyde is produced and sold as water solutions containing 
variable amounts of methanol. These solutions are complex 
equilibrium mixtures of methylene glycol, poly (oxymethylene 
glycols) and hemiformals of these glycols. Formaldehyde is noted 
for its reactivity and versatility as an intermediate chemical. 
It is also an active reducing agent. In the presence of an alkali, 
hydrogen peroxide oxidizes formaldehyde to formic acid. When 
reacting with metal oxide catalysts, it reduces very easily to 
methanol. The chemical is oxidized to formic acid and or carbon 
dioxide and water. It may be noted that analyses involving the 
addition of chlorine in the processing of samples will result in 
the reduction of formaldehyde to form carbon dioxide and water. 
Water wells are commonly disinfected by the addition of chlorine 
based chemicals. 

FORMALDEHYDE AS A PRESERVATIVE 

Three different indices of formaldehyde preservative exist: 



Low 


< 20% 


Medium 


20-29 


High 


>30% 



One litre of a formaldehyde based preservative per 5.0 kilograms 
of body weight is normally used in the embalming process. An 
additive of 0.18 litres of 32 index in 9 litres of water gives a 



solution of 2% formaldehyde, which is a standard concentration used 
in embalming. 

Formaldehyde is used in a number of other practices. It may be 
interesting to note that formaldehyde is used also in agricultural 
practises to destroy some fungi, in tanning practices, in the 
manufacture of plastics and sometimes as a substitute process 
chemical in the manufacture of combs and buttons (H. C Muldoon & 
M. Blake, Systematic Organic Chemistry 1957, p. 220). 

LABORATORY ANALYSIS TECHNIQUE 

Formaldehyde is readily quantified at micrograms/L levels in 
drinking water. Reporting limits as low as 20 micrograms/L are 
routinely achieved. Formaldehyde detection typically exceeds 90% 
at 20-200 micrograms/L. The laboratory procedure is presented in 
Appendix C. 

SAMPLING 

Samples were taken at existing domestic/irrigation wells at six 
sites in Ontario. These sites were screened and selected to ensure 
sampling integrity, relative to their construction. Selected wells 
were located for the most part in sandy shallow aquifers down 
gradient of cemeteries. Wells ranged in depth from 3 to 24 metres 
(see Appendix A) . Sites CMF-1, 3 and 4 are actually located within 
the confines of the cemetery downgradient of the most filled part 
of the cemetery, (burial time ranges from 100 to 8 years ago) . 
Separation distance from the potential source ranged between 500 
and 2000 metres. 

Samples were taken from cold water taps connected directly to 
plumbing from the well. All taps were purged for a period of five 
minutes before samples were taken. 

Unfiltered, duplicate one litre samples were taken at each site. 
One litre screw cap amber coloured bottles containing no 
preservatives were used. To assure sample integrity, wells that 
conformed to proper well construction criteria were selected for 
sampling. Samples were shipped to the laboratory for analysis 
within 6 hours from time of sampling where they were refrigerated 
until analysis could be done (1-2 days) . Samples were analyzed for 
formaldehyde, nitrates and phosphates. Bacteriological analyses 
were also done. 



DISCUSSION 

The investigators were particularly interested in the potential 
contamination of groundwater resulting from the use of certain 
chemicals used for the preservation of deceased human bodies. The 
chemical formaldehyde is of particular interest because of its 



Spotential human carcinogenic effects. 

In order to gain some insight into the decomposition process, the 
investigators first attempted to theoretically predict the extent 
to which organic matter and other properties derived from a buried 
cadaver in the soil, could be broken down. 

The human body has roughly the following composition (Van Haaren 
F.W.J. , 1951): 



water 


- 


64% 


protein 


- 


20% 


fat 


- 


10% 


carbohydrates 


- 


1% 


mineral salts 


- 


5% 



The average weight of a corpse is assumed to be 65 kg. This 
assumption is based on the average weight of adults, children 
and emaciated corpses (from terminal illnesses) . 

65kg (total weight) - 6.60kg (fat) = 58.4kg 

Based on a weight of 58.4kg, the average chemical loading per 

body, (kg) is: 



water 


- 


37.38 


protein 


- 


11.68 


fat 


- 


5.84 


carbohydrates 


- 


0.58 


mineral salts 


- 


2.92 



The decompositional product which may be of greatest environmental 
concern is nitrogen (a derivative of the body's protein content). 
This will be discussed in Part II of this discussion; 
Decompositional Products. 

Formaldehyde Loading 

If one assumes that all corpses are preserved with formaldehyde and 
that 50% of the chemical retains its chemical configuration, then 
the following is a theoretical loading estimation: 



a) Average body weight = 58.4 kg 

b) Standard cadaver preservation = 1 litre 2% formaldehyde 
solution / 5 kg body weight 

- therefore 58.4 / 5 = 11.7 L formaldehyde / body 

= 11.7 L x 0.02 (2%) 

= 0.234 L of formaldehyde / body /2 (50%) 
= 0.117 L of formaldehyde / body 

Using a maximum density of 500 bodies per acre, one will arrive at 



a loading of: 

500 bodies / acre x 0.117 L 

= 58.5 L formaldehyde / acre over a 
period of 10 - 15 years 

= 0.012 L formaldehyde / day 

As an illustration, if the rechargeable volume of an aquifer is: 

50,000 gpd (a small aquifer) = 227,3000 L/day 

and 
0.012 litres/day of formaldehyde is added daily, 

then 
the concentration of formaldehyde/litre =0.012/227,300 

= 5.0 ng/L or 5ppt 

A Ministry of the Environment hydrogeological study done for Blue 
Springs Creek, (Hydrogeology and Groundwater Model of the Blue 
Springs Creek IHD Representative Drainage Basin, Water Resources 
Report #10, 1978, p. 28 - 36), indicated that the groundwater 
contribution to base flow measured 3.9 million Imperial gallons per 
day, an illustration of the actual storage capacity of aquifers in 
this area. Thus, the dilution capacity of the aquifer is actually 
close to 8 - 10 times greater than indicated here. This would 
result in a concentration for the above calculation of 0.5 ppt 
formaldehyde. 

Under these circumstances, it is obvious that if the chemical does 
inadvertently get into the aquifer, the dilution factor would 
render it a low priority source of contamination. 

In confirmation, the results of the study revealed extremely low 
levels of formaldehyde. One must note that a blank sample analysed 
during the study, had a reading of 7.29 ppb formaldehyde, 
indicating that samples may have a built in error factor of this 
magnitude. As a result, the actual concentrations of formaldehyde 
in the groundwater samples collected may be lower than those 
reported in Appendix B. 

It must also be remembered that formaldehyde is a breakdown product 
of a number of chemicals and is produced from a number of human 
activities. Results indicate that cemeteries are not a significant 
contributing source of formaldehyde to groundwater. 

Decompositional Products 

The decompositional product which may be of greatest environmental 
concern, is nitrogen (a derivative of the protein component 
mentioned above) equalling 1.87 kg per corpse. The maximum loading 
rate (using 500 bodies per acre) , is assumed to be: 



• 



500 x 1.87 kg N 
= 935 kg N / acre 

Consider an aquifer with a rechargeable volume of 227,300 lpd 

then the concentration would be: 935 / 227,300 L 

= 0.0041 kg / L or 4113 mg/L 

over a period of 10 - 15 years 

= 0.90 mg N / L 

One must remember that decomposition occurs gradually and thus 
nitrogen is released at a very insignificant rate. 

Also, the number of bodies actually buried in a cemetery during one 
year varies considerably. It is unlikely that one block in a 
cemetery will be filled in one year. Loading is also drastically 
reduced in cemeteries using concrete vaults. 

The established Drinking Water Standard for nitrate and nitrite 
nitrogen stands at 10.0 mg/L and 1.0 mg/L respectively. 

The results of analyses done for nitrates, nitrites and phosphates 
indicate with the exception of one site, (the Woodhouse Cemetery 
site - nitrate) only very low levels exist (<10 mg/L) . 

There is no drinking water standard set for Phosphorus/phosphates 
as it is not considered a health or aesthetic hazard. Restrictive 
levels are established only for discharge volumes to the Great 
Lakes as phosphates are nutrients which, in high concentrations 
stimulate algae blooms, (which use up available oxygen, and 
consequently threaten aquatic life) . 

The results of six sites that were sampled in this study, are 
presented in Appendix B. 



CONCLUSIONS 

The analysis of groundwater samples collected at wells located 
downgradient of six cemeteries sites in Ontario, indicated that 
cemeteries are not a significant source of groundwater 
contamination by formaldehyde. In addition, the calculated loading 
estimates for formaldehyde and nitrates being released from 
cemeteries supports a low potential for groundwater contamination. 

The concentration of nitrate exceeded the Ontario Drinking Water 
Objective in groundwater samples collected at one cemetery site. 
The sources of nitrates at this site were not investigated further, 
and may be the result of nitrate loadings from other practices. 



BIBLIOGRAPHY 



Graftstrom R.C., Fornace A. J. Jr., Autrup H. , Lechner J.F. and 
Harris C.C. Science 220, 1983, p 216-218. 

Hem John D. , Study and Interpretation of the Chemical 
Characteristics of Natural Water. Geologic Survey Water 
Supply paper 1473, U.S. Dept. of Interior, 1970, 2nd 
Edition. 

Stofen D. The Maximum Permissible Concentration in the U.S.S.R. For 
Harmful Substances in Drinking Water. Toxicology 1, 1973 
(187-195) . North Holland, Amsterdam. 

Tomkins B.A.,McMahon J., Caldwell W.M Liquid Chromatographic 
Determination of Total Formaldehyde in Drinking Water. 
Analytical Chemistry, vol 72, no. 5, 1989. 

Van Haaren Dr. F.W.J. Cemeteries As A Source of Water 
Contamination. Moorman's Periodieke pers, Den Haag, 
Zwarteweg 1. Aug2 , 1951. 

Hydrogeology and Groundwater Model of the Blue Springs Creek IHD 
Representative Drainage Basin, Water Resources Report #10, 1978, 
p. 28 - 36 

Guidelines for Reviewing Proposed Cemetery Sites (For Medical 
Officers of Health). M.O.E., 1989. 

Parameters Listing System (PALIS) . MOE, February, 1991. 



APPENDIX A - SITES 

APPENDIX B - RESULTS 

APPENDIX C - LAB PROCEDURE FOR THE TESTING OF FORMALDEHYDE 

DIAGRAM 1 - SITE LOCATIONS 



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APPENDIX C 

LABORATORY PROCEDURE FOR THE TESTING OF FORMALDEHYDE IN 

DRINKING WATER 

Formaldehyde is readily quantified at micrograms/L levels in 
drinking water. The analyte present in IL water samples is 
derivatized with 2,4 dinitrophenlyhydrazine (DNPH) , in a 2M acid 
medium and then extracted with chloroform. After the solvent is 
exchanged for methanol, the product is separated and quantified 
using reverse phase liquid chromatography with UV detection (3 65 
nm) . Reporting limits as low as 20 micrograms/L are routinely 
achieved. Formaldehyde recovery typically exceeds 90% at 20-200 
micrograms/L. The samples are accompanied by sets of blanks and 
spikes specified by a quality assurance/quality control plan, 
(Tomkins et Al. P. 835 Analytical Chemistry vol 72, no. 5, 1989). 

To exactly 500 mL water samples, 40 mL of 2,4-DNPH solution (15g 
DNPH crystalline solid Merck dissolved in 6 litres of distilled 
water containing 2N HCl/the solution purified by extraction with 
chloroform) was added, and the solution mixed thoroughly for 15 
minutes. The solution was then extracted with 3x50 mL chloroform 
and the chloroform extract washed with 2 N HC1 (lOOmL) followed by 
washing with distilled water (lOOmL) . The extract was then 
evaporated to dryness in a rotary evaporator at 3 5 C under reduced 
pressure, and the residue dissolved in acetonitrile. The solution 
after appropriate dilution was then analyzed by HPLC/UV using the 
optimized chromatographic conditions. A reference f ormaldehyde- 
DNPH derivative was used for calibration by peak area method using 
retention times confirmatory technique. 

QA/QC studies involved running one method blank (distilled water) , 
one spiked water sample (distilled water) and one duplicate for all 
samples taken in this project.